In Blog, Remembrance

Tony Bennett, the legendary pop and jazz crooner who famously sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” died on July 21, 2023. He was 96.

In the early ’90s, Bennett was an aging hipster at a crossroads. He’d had a prolific recording career, becoming a star with a chain of major hits in the ’50s that included “Because of You,” “Cold Cold Heart” and “Rags to Riches.”  But he hadn’t had a record deal since the ’70s.

With a management team led by his son Danny, Bennett popped up in some unusual places—appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, then a cartoon cameo on The Simpsons, then a Nike commercial. And in 1993, he stole the show at the MTV Video Music Awards with the tuxedoed Red Hot Chili Peppers, strolling on stage in a velvet top hat, T-shirt, shorts and sunglasses and crooning a few lines of a Chili Peppers song.

The gig really lit the firecracker, and after his Grammy-winning 1994 MTV Unplugged set, Bennett enjoyed a newfound cachet among a generation that was barely around for Watergate. The hair on the heads filling his shows ranged from blue to green. In 2001, the singer teamed up with k.d. lang for a tour that visited Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre in Denver. He had just celebrated his 75th birthday, exuding a mellow happiness that was contagious.

“You know what it is? A wisdom sets in. You accumulate a lot of knowledge,” he said in his smoky rasp of a singing voice. “I was lucky to catch the tail end of the old vaudeville days, when you went from town to town and they took time to allow you to break in. It takes about ten years to really learn how to work on a stage and feel competent.”

Musically, Bennett had never crossed the line between cool and campy. He was a conservationist of music history. The voice was thicker, but he still loved to belt Berlin, Porter, Gershwin and Ellington—the popular American songbook.

“That’s the treasure chest of the ’30s and ’40s. Beautiful music, a lot better than the music that is out today. In those days, it was people like Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee that went right to the top, because they were doing the best music. It’s a different era now. It’s who just sold the most records—the obsolescence, the super-greed going on.

“In America, we’ve made a lot of money, we’re very successful a lot of times, but down the line a couple of hundred years from now, they’ll say, ‘Well, what did you guys contribute to the rest of the world? It’s jazz—that’s our only tradition, that and baseball.”

Also an accomplished painter, Bennett exhibited his landscapes, portraits and still lifes in galleries worldwide under his real name, Benedetto. But painting was a choice for him. Singing was not.

“I love to work. I don’t have to do it, but I love it. I learn every time I hit the stage. The only advice I could give anybody that sings is to drink a lot of water and get a lot of sleep! Take care of yourself and you start singing good.”

Bennett walked the talk—and the song. Despite an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2016, he continued to sing at an impressive level until 2021, joining Lady Gaga—with whom he’d recorded albums in 2014 and 2021—at Radio City Music Hall on his 95th birthday.